Criticizing College Athletes: Fair Game?

Mike Gundy
Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy speaks to ESPN's Jenn Brown in 2010.

By Bennet Hayes

They are, quite easily, the five most memorable words of Mike Gundy’s 10-year career as Oklahoma State head football coach. They are also one of the most direct and public condemnations of criticism directed at college athletes.



In unleashing his now-famous “I’m a man, I’m 40” rant in October of 2007, Gundy took a firm stance against the local media’s negative critiques of his former starting quarterback Bobby Reid. Many have questioned Gundy’s true motives in the years since (including Reid himself), but at least outwardly, the message was clear: 18-to-22-year-old college athletes should be shielded from criticism.

If anything, however, the continued evolution of the 24-hour news cycle in the seven years since Gundy’s diatribe has only multiplied the criticism levied at college athletes.

In evaluating the current climate, sports media critic Ed Sherman said differentiating between professionals and collegians [in the major revenue sports] can be difficult.

“I can’t say [the commentary] is that different between college and pro athletes, especially at the elite level,” said Sherman, Chicago Tribune contributor and voice of “Sherman Report” website says. “It strikes me that they are pretty close to being pro athletes anyways, so I don’t think anyone is holding back.”

Dan Dakich, former Indiana and Bowling Green basketball coach and current ESPN color analyst, is known as one of the most direct and honest voices in the college sports media.

Dakich was on the call for a Jan. 20 broadcast of Iowa’s loss at Wisconsin when Hawkeye center Adam Woodbury was caught on camera poking multiple Wisconsin players in the eye. Dakich did not hold back in his analysis of the incidents.

“It’s gutless … and he’s doing it on purpose.,” Dakich said on air. “You can say he’s not and you can get mad at me all you want, but he’s doing it on purpose. It needs to stop and the Big Ten office needs to discipline the kid.

“That’s as cowardly as you can be to hit a guy from behind or to poke a guy in the face and quite frankly [Iowa coach] Fran McCaffery and his staff have got to stop this.”

McCaffery echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Gundy years ago in responding to Dakich’s criticism.

“Dan Dakich is so far out of line,” McCaffery said on his Jan. 21 radio show. “He’s just lost it on this one. He doesn’t know Adam Woodbury.

“And for him to say the reprehensible things he said about an amateur athlete, it’s inexcusable.”

One word stood out in McCaffery’s response: amateur. The veil of amateurism, he argued, should shield Woodbury from any sort of criticism.

Even if we disregard the increasingly blurry perception of athletes in major college sports, McCaffery’s line of defense again raises that question: Should college athletes be shielded from media criticism?

Teddy Greenstein, who covers college and pro sports for the Tribune, said college athletes lose a certain protection if lines are crossed.

“When you get into either horrible sportsmanship or purposely injuring someone – like what Woodbury did – I think that player has totally crossed a line and put himself out there for harsh criticism,” Greenstein said.

Still, Greenstein said he does treat college athletes differently from professionals.

“With college athletes, I just think they all have to start with the benefit of the doubt because they are not professional athletes,” Greenstein said.

Former Northwestern basketball captain Sterling Williams said he was often aware of criticism levied at him during his five years at NU (2004-‘09). He said it comes with the territory.

“I think it’s a part of it, especially in college,” Williams said. “I would probably draw the line for high school, but in college I think it’s fair game for players to be criticized.

“Attention gets thrown your way and you are on that platform, so they write good things and they write bad things. That’s what you sign up for.”

Dakich said in a phone interview last week he sees no reason to shelter college athletes.

“I coached for 25 years,” Dakich said. “I have a respect for college athletes so I know that they can handle things that bloggers whine about.

“I know college athletes want the truth. They aren’t hurt by the truth.”

Photo at top: Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy speaks to ESPN’s Jenn Brown in 2010. (KT King/Flickr)